Funny Business: Harnessing the Power of Play to Give Your Company a Competitive Advantage

Funny Business: Harnessing the Power of Play to Give Your Company a Competitive Advantage

by Christopher Byrne

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Play is an essential, necessary, and natural human activity…and it's for adults and companies, too. Play is an immersive process that allows us to ask "What if?" to break free of the strictures that limit creativity and satisfaction. It is not about reverting to childhood, but a way to use the processes that came naturally to us as children but have been trained out of us, labeled as inappropriate, or otherwise diminished.

Funny Business will show you how adults and companies can recapture and use this powerful tool to foster innovation, increase their competitive advantage, and create a vibrant and satisfying workplace. It delves into the concepts of play and what makes it so powerful in children's development‚ and dispels the myths and beliefs that have made play a dirty word.

From distinguishing between play and recreation to covering the practical tools managers and companies can use to create lasting change at all levels of operation, Funny Business will help you discover how your creative powers are one of the greatest assets you have and how they can contribute to your company and career.

Okay, let's play!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601633644
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 07/20/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Christopher Byrne is a 30-year veteran of the toy industry. A researcher, analyst, and consultant, he has worked with a variety of Fortune 100 companies on projects ranging from fostering creativity to marketing and communications. He is currently a partner in aNb Media, LLC, and content director for TTPM ( In 1988, he formed New York-based Byrne Communications. Byrne appears regularly on TV discussing toys and play and speaks around the United States and internationally on topics related to creativity and integrating play concepts into business.

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Defining Play

Play, in its simplest terms, begins with asking the question "What if?"

For a child, it's asking, "What if I stack these blocks as high as I can?" or "What if my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures stomp on the bad guys?"

The idea takes shape in the mind, and the child, in this case, puts it into action and sees where it takes him or her. And therein lies the key.

Play is really nothing more than an idea followed by action where the outcome is not known until the action is taken. Now, you might say that this is like a science experiment, and in a way it is. Experiments, though, are devised out of a desire to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Play, on the other hand, starts not with a hypothesis but an idea inspired in the moment.

With respect to the above children's play situations, the answer to the "What If?" question might be a stack of four bricks. Perhaps eight. Perhaps a story of total annihilation of the bad guys takes shape. Perhaps one is captured and converted to being a good guy. That outcome, that moment of play, will inevitably lead to the next question and the next action until it's time to pick up the toys or go to bed or do homework or whatever the next thing in the child's life is.

For children, play serves three essential developmental functions: It provides new experiences. It allows them to explore their worlds. And it allows them to express themselves. Over time what kids discover and learn about themselves and their culture will create the experiences that help shape their personalities and their perceptions of the world. It will allow them to locate themselves as individuals within the context of their peers and their families. It will give them a chance to try on different responses to situations and to discover themselves — all within the relatively safe confines of childhood. Play is both profound in terms of how it shapes our realities and cumulative in that its true impact on a developing personality is only realized over time. Play, as many have said, is rehearsal for adulthood, and as a tool of learning and socialization, it is more complex than simply asking a question and getting an answer, but that's a good place to start for our purposes.

(As a side note, what I've described previously is generally referred to as "open-ended play." It is centered on the imagination and what is created out of it. It's distinct from directed play in which there is a specific objective [i.e., complete the LEGO model].)

So, why should this be bad thing for adults — and not a lifelong habit? Probably because play has gotten a bad name in our culture, largely because it is associated with childhood and immaturity. In fact, for adults, play is considered a bad word. It evokes a lack of seriousness. It is seen as aimless, unproductive, and wasteful. To say someone is playing is tantamount to saying that they're not contributing effectively — that, somehow, they are not really adults.

I blame St. Paul. Seriously.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul threw an effective wet blanket on play that has endured nearly 2,000 years. He wrote, "When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things."

Gee, thanks. This has been used for millennia to quash the creative spirit. (I'm exaggerating for effect, but only a little.) So for many cultures, play became one of those childish things that were to be put away. After a certain age there were to be no more flights of fancy. No more pretending to be a superhero. No spending the afternoon staring at clouds, building forts, and so forth. Life for adults was serious business, and anything that smacked of childishness had to be banished.

This is seriously misguided, however, because play is serious business.

And play belongs in business because it is the catalyst that leads to innovation, and that is sorely needed in today's competitive economy. If you accept the definition of play provided earlier, then you know that the concept of play is really about releasing the creative force within each of us, to affect our lives. Just as a child might make up a story about Spider Man, we make up the stories of our lives.

You make it up. You make it all up. You really do.

Ideally, how we live our lives is play in its purest form, and it is one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and for businesses. We do it every day, whether we recognize it or not in our personal and professional lives — and, incidentally, I don't buy that work and personal lives can be separate; we are the same body, the same heart, mind, and soul, whether we're sitting at our desks or in our homes. We are professionals and consumers — and we are powerful individuals who, if we're willing, can use play to transform our lives and our businesses.

So why limit yourself because you think something should be a certain way? In fact, the notion of what it means to be a "grown-up" and not to play is something that was made up.

It's the darker side of what Kermit the Frog songs about in "The Rainbow Connection": "Somebody thought of it/And someone believed it. Look what it's done so far."

Everything we know and believe starts as an idea, something created in the imagination — from the religions of the world to Apple computer. The essential component, though, is the belief in the potential reality of what you've made up. It is to see and embrace possibility. This is the catalyst for action. It is a form of practical wizardry. And, yes, people can be wizards — are wizards. That's right: You're no different from Harry Potter and his friends. Fictional wizards use words with the expectation of making something happen. Leave out the wands, capes, and mystical creatures, and by another name that's a business plan. (You'll never think of PowerPoint the same way again.) On its most elemental level, your words — and time — create a new reality when put into action, and you create something that hadn't existed before you cast your spell. Just as a child might get his or her friends to build a fort or a sand castle, so does a manager get all his or her employees to build a great product. It's really no different. Something that didn't exist through the power of imagination, words, belief, and action becomes real. Thus, what grown-ups call strategic planning by any other name is its own kind of magic, though any marketing strategist would probably stab him- or herself before admitting that. Too bad.

You Don't Grow Out of Play! But You Might Grow Into It.

If you take anything away from the foregoing, it should be that play isn't something you leave behind you when you get older. Rather, it should be an essential part of your toolkit, something you can access when needed.

But, obviously, there is a difference between the way adults play and the way kids do, just by virtue of cognitive development and experience. Before we get into the way adults can play productively and effectively, however, let's take a step back and understand in a little more detail the importance of play in overall child development.

There is plenty of scholarly research on play, and you can study people like Piaget, Montessori, and many others. However, what they'll tell you is in the context of child development and what children learn at different stages, and we're dealing with people who are already developed (however you might think of some of your co-workers).

Whatever theory of play you subscribe to — or none for that matter — they all basically talk about the same thing: how children learn to be in the world. There are the cognitive elements related to learning and the accumulation of experiences that allow for some level of predictability and then, of course, the social aspects of learning to function in relation to other people. By the time we get to be adults, we forget what hard work this is for children for several reasons. We have internalized the lessons and they've become a part of us, and we don't give them a second thought.

Probably the best example of this is learning to ride a bike. Think back to the struggle of balancing on two wheels and pedaling. It is not something that comes naturally to us as humans. Remember how many times you teetered and fell off, and ultimately that moment when everything came together and your body adapted to it. (Older folks may have more recent memories of adapting to bifocals or progressive lenses.) Most likely that stunt of balancing and pedaling is something you couldn't unlearn, no matter how hard you tried. It's the same thing with virtually every play experience you had as a child. You are actually building synapses based on physical or cognitive experiences that didn't just become esoteric knowledge: They became part of your body. What dancers refer to as "muscle memory" really is how we've learned. (And, as we'll see later, why it's so difficult for many people to change courses.)

I'll give you one more example that's so commonplace as to be almost trite, but it's something I hear all the time from adults. The conversation usually begins with something like this: "We gave little Snookums this wonderful toy, and he only played with the box."

Generally that's used as a way to express disappointment that an expensive item went disregarded as the child's attention is captivated by something that is considered disposable. And the conversation stops there. But there's something important in this that has direct relevance to effective management in the adult, business world as well.

Why does the child play with the box and not the toy? That usually happens because the toy is too sophisticated, complicated, or involved for the child's level of development. When things are too confusing, children don't engage with them, not out of disinterest, but because they can't. They haven't developed to the point where they can. It's that simple. The box, on the other hand, has direct relevance to what they already know: working the flaps, putting things in and taking them out, picking it up and putting it on their heads. This is fun! And it's fun largely because it starts out being familiar but there are cool things to discover along the way. It's important to note that what looks like repetitive activity by the child is actually creating and reinforcing neural pathways in the child's brain with each repetition.

Watching a child abandon a toy that he or she has no interest in is often frustrating for an adult because the adult thinks the child should be able to do that. We hear all the time things along the lines of "This toy is designed for kids ages 6 and up, but little precious is so bright that at 4 he can handle it." Well, he can't. Because even an advanced 4-year-old doesn't yet have the brain development of a 6-year-old. It can't happen. The pitfall is that as adults unless we consciously try we can't conceive of how a child perceives things.

We also see this a lot with respect to technology. "My little one can work the iPad!" parents crow with great pride. To an extent, yes, he or she can. However, I highly recommend thinking about what is actually happening when the iPad is being "worked." It's not like the little tyke can manage a bank account from the touchscreen. Rather, he or she is doing something rudimentary that even a child of a year can do: touch something and observe a reaction. This is a fundamental element of infant play. It's not different from putting a spoon in a pot. That's actually an important part of infant play because each time the child engages in the action, he or she is learning something new — perceiving something new. Touching an icon and watching an app open up is no different.

This has application throughout life as we try to learn new things. Quite frankly, unless we're naturally talented, we're going to suck at anything new when we first start out. But over time, and with practice and attention, we get better at it. Sure, natural talent may make the difference between mere competence and exceptional performance, but it's the experience that counts. As Steve Jobs reportedly said, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Obviously, that's a statement open to debate and probably said as much for its value as a sound bite as truth. But the point is, you have to work at something to be good at it — at least for something that doesn't come naturally.

Yes, we hear all sorts of stuff about how people get "too old" to do new things, but brain science doesn't bear that out. It may take you a little longer to build synapses as your body chemistry changes, but it can still happen. Rather, what I consistently observe is that change is threatening, and if people are doing okay, then they don't want to invest the effort. But, as we all know, in a competitive business environment, "doing okay" isn't going to cut it in the long run.

When I was first starting out, I had an older colleague who told me that his career strategy was "keep my head down and not get cut." He was actually a great guy who achieved a middling level of success (in my opinion). Though his career strategy served him for a couple of decades, he ultimately found himself in his early 50s getting cut and struggling to find work. His ability to survive in a corporate setting was not an accomplishment that most companies were looking to hire.

Play is the antithesis of this kind of sedentary career goal. It's about always looking for what's new and next, trying it out, and seeing where it takes you. It's about opening up to what's possible and being willing to let experience teach you without being hobbled by fear. To me, at least, that's a much more fun way to live anyway.

Why Play Works — And Why Other Things Might Not

This is why what we're calling play needs to become part of your daily consciousness and practice. Play works because it is organically human. It comes naturally to us as mammals, and it is in our nature. It doesn't need to be learned. It keeps us involved and engaged in life and seeking new experiences.

On some level you could say it's a semantic argument, that what I'm talking about is just another way of saying "best practices," and that, as grown-ups, what I'm calling play is just another name for learning. I'll get to why it's different in a moment.

There is a whole — highly profitable — industry out there designed to make you a better, more effective, and more successful person. You can read countless other books and attend seminars on being more creative, unleashing whatever is leashed up inside you that's holding you back from success, and so on and so on.

If you've tried these things, ask: Have they worked? Are you more successful, prosperous, or advanced in your career because of this stuff? Have you made more money, achieved your goals? Have you tipped? Do you practice the habits that have made you the powerhouse you always dreamed of being? Have you become adept at putting the big rocks in the box first? All of these have been suggested as key steppingstones in achieving wealth, success, fame, power, and a private jet. (It kind of sounds like a game show when you put it that way, doesn't it?)

If these have worked for you, congratulations. I applaud you for time and money well spent and your diligence as a student. Of course, I also wonder why you're now reading this, but maybe you're a perpetual seeker.

For most people, though, these systems, methodologies, and so forth don't work the way they hoped they would. And they don't work for one very specific reason: They are not natural. Yes, they sound good, and they seem to lay out a roadmap that anyone can follow, and so we believe it and buy the book or go the seminar, and we diligently try for a week or two or three to put these new practices into play, but ultimately, without a systemic, cultural change in a workplace that supports this kind of wholesale change, most people inevitably go back to their own way of doing things. That's completely predictable because that's our nature. We don't change until not changing is more painful or difficult than changing, as any psychologist will tell you. And, as we'll see in a bit, change doesn't happen in a vacuum.

Now, I'm not discounting all these other methods, their solutions, learning and adopting new practices to be more effective — not at all. They all have some very helpful insights, but what I am saying is that a wholesale change in character based on a book or a seminar is not possible. All of these systems seem to provide answers by imposing information on us. Play, on the other hand, comes from within. It is organic and as individual as each of us is.


Excerpted from "Funny Business"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Christopher Byrne.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 9

Chapter 1 Defining Play 21

Chapter 2 Story-The Center of All Play 43

Chapter 3 Play vs. Recreation 73

Chapter 4 The Power of Playing Alone 81

Chapter 5 The Benefits of Group Play 103

Chapter 6 Boys and Girls Play Differently 129

Chapter 7 Play Is Assessing Information, Taking Risks, and Taking Action 139

Chapter 8 Drop It if It Doesn't Work 173

Chapter 9 Playing the Game 185

Chapter 10 Get Playinga 195

Acknowledgments 211

Index 213

About the Author 221

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